Advisers say Fetterman can engage in one-on-one conversations but struggles with more chaotic auditory environments, a condition that is common for stroke survivors and which doctors say can improve over time.
Fetterman, who returned to the campaign trail Aug. 12, has yet to agree to any debates despite assurances from his advisers that he does plan to meet Oz, a celebrity cardiologist, on stage. He announced Tuesday that he would not attend a proposed debate Sept. 6, after the Oz campaign released a statement that, Fetterman said, showed “they think it is funny to mock a stroke survivor.”
The Oz campaign, which is pushing for five debates, including two next week, promised in a sarcastic statement Tuesday to “pay for any additional medical personnel” Fetterman might need at debates, permit Fetterman to use notes or an earpiece, and allow Fetterman to take bathroom breaks as needed. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, which supports Oz, stuck with the line of attack Wednesday, calling Fetterman “a whiny coward” who is “too weak and feeble” to debate.
“If you’re too unhealthy to debate, you are too unhealthy to serve in the US Senate where it can be 10X more intense,” an unsigned NRSC statement said.
The growing tensions highlight an extraordinary dynamic unfolding in a race seen as central to deciding which party controls the Senate next year. Republicans are trying to make Fetterman’s health and his campaign’s explanation of it a liability this fall after Fetterman suffered a stroke in mid-May and only later revealed a more complete picture of his medical history.
Fetterman and his allies, seeking to show he can serve in a demanding job despite facing a challenging recovery, have engaged in the fight just as aggressively, labeling the broadsides as shameful attacks from a struggling rival.
Since returning to in-person events, Fetterman’s speeches have been limited to about 10 minutes and are sometimes halting. He has mostly avoided public interactions with reporters and voters, beyond working the rope line. He has done two one-on-one interviews over Zoom with local news outlets that were conducted with real-time closed captioning to avoid gaps in the conversation. In both interviews, he disclosed his continued struggles in both hearing and speaking.
“I’ll miss a word, or I might push two words together sometime in a conversation. But that’s really the only issue and it’s getting better and better,” Fetterman told KDKA in Pittsburgh.
Fetterman’s campaign announced he would have his first national television interview since his stroke, on MSNBC on Wednesday night. Oz and Republicans have accused Fetterman of being unable to handle reporter questions.
Democrats and the Fetterman campaign said they see attacks on him from Republicans as a sign of desperation that could backfire on Oz, who has been trailing Fetterman in early polls. Democratic focus groups in August found little concern among swing voters about Fetterman’s health, with substantial sympathy for his continued recovery, according to a Democratic pollster who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private investigation.
In the sessions, Democrats showed swing voters videos of Fetterman speaking before and after the stroke to test for concerns. Voters responded by saying that they knew people who had a stroke and “it takes time” and expressed confidence that he would continue to improve, the pollster said.
Fetterman’s campaign responded to Oz on Wednesday with a video clip from a weekend campaign appearance, where he marveled at the approach of the Oz campaign.
“Can you even imagine that if you had a doctor that was mocking your illness or ridiculing that?” Fetterman said in Mercer County, a rural part of the state. He continued: “Here we are right now. I would like to think that Dr. Oz may have really lost his way if you were going to make fun of somebody that had a stroke.”
Oz has avoided engaging in the attacks himself, and on Tuesday he distanced himself from his own campaign for mocking Fetterman for not eating enough vegetables before his stroke.
“I can only speak to what I’m saying,” Oz said in a radio interview.
The new attacks come as Fetterman continues to recover from a life-threatening clot that temporarily restricted blood flow to his brain. His campaign waited nearly two days after the stroke to tell the public that he was in the hospital, and then disclosed weeks later that Fetterman had been diagnosed in 2017 with cardiomyopathy, a separate condition that decreases the amount of blood his heart can pump.
After the stroke, he had a pacemaker and defibrillator implanted treat the cardiomyopathyand Fetterman released a public statement promising to take the medication that he had stopped taking after his 2017 diagnosis.
Fetterman’s aides say he has been fully engaged in his campaign and regularly walks several miles a day. After Oz distanced himself from his own campaign’s statements, Fetterman personally drafted a meme he circulated on Twitter that used images of the musician Drake to mock those who disapprove of “making fun of strokes” but approve of “others making fun of strokes,” according to a person familiar with the events.
Joseph Schindler, clinical director of the Yale New Haven Comprehensive Stroke Center, said that without a good clinical exam and an MRI of the brain, it is difficult to know what kind of impairment any individual stroke survivor is having. But he said the inability to filter out external stimuli, including background noise, is a common complaint of people who have suffered strokes. It can improve over time but does not always do so, he said.
Schindler offered by way of example a person who sits on a bench. Upon first sitting down, the person feels the bench, but over time the brain filters out that stimulus as it focuses on other things. But after a stroke, a person may not be able to do that, or ignore a conversation nearby or background music, Schindler said.
“My experience is it’s highly variable and recovery is often dependent upon the injury in the brain and the localization of where that injury is,” Schindler said.
The tenor of the campaign between Fetterman and Oz has been deteriorating all summer, with Fetterman mocking Oz as an out-of-touch celebrity “in Gucci loafers” who has long lived in New Jersey and owns multiple properties around the world. Oz has responded by calling Fetterman a soft-on-crime liberal hiding in his basement.
“The Fetterman campaign is completely insulting the intelligence of Pennsylvania voters,” Oz adviser Barney Keller said Wednesday. “It can only be one of two reasons: He is lying about his ability to debate or he is lying about his willingness to debate. He can’t have both at the same time.”
Despite Oz’s own hesitations, the Republican’s campaign has not shown any regret about its aggressive attacks on Fetterman’s health.
“Our staff told him to eat his vegetables and his staff employs two convicted murderers,” said one Oz adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity to more openly describe the approach. “We will leave it to Pennsylvania to decide.”
Fetterman, who had embraced criminal justice overhauls including the legalization of recreational marijuana, employs Dennis and Lee Horton, brothers who spent 30 years in prison for a robbery and murder they say they did not commit. They were recommended for clemency by the state Board of Pardons in 2020 and later released from life sentences with the support of Fetterman and Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who is running as the Democratic gubernatorial nominee this year.
Fetterman has called their release “the pinnacle of my career.”
“These brothers will not die in prison for a crime they did not commit,” he said is Twitter in October.
Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) spent several hours Saturday with Fetterman at Demstock, an annual festival gathering for rural Democrats. Casey said there were no issues with Fetterman’s ability to hear and respond during their interactions in a cavernous room, although his recovery was still evident.
“He sounded really good and really strong,” Casey said. “He’s not there yet, it takes time. I think most people understand that.”
Democrats in the state aren’t “concerned at all,” Casey said. “Obviously he’s had a long road between the stroke right before the primary and where he is today, and he has made remarkable progress in a relatively short amount of time.”
TJ Rooney, former chairman of the state Democratic Party, hosted a virtual fundraiser for Fetterman a few weeks ago, where the candidate spoke and then there was a Q&A with questions people submitted in advance and were all read by the same donor on the call.
“His speech was definitely off, but he absolutely heard and understood the questions,” Rooney said. “His responses were jumbled, some words mushed together, but he clearly knew what was being asked.”